“Work: Curse or Calling” at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery

Sometimes I forget about the beautiful gallery located in the Fine Arts Building on Calvin College’s campus here in Grand Rapids.  Months ago, I received an invitational show card for “WORK: Curse or Calling” and stuck it to my fridge to make certain I wouldn’t let this exhibition pass by.  The show was not a disappointment, but it did help that my expectations were on the low side.

All juried shows face similar problems of cohesion. The quality of the show is utterly dependant upon the quality of the submissions received. And this is dependant upon the quality of the network that disperses the Call For Submissions. The exhibition “WORK” was organized and funded by CIVA, Christians in the Visual Arts.  Joel Zwart, the gallery director and curator at Calvin culled submissions down to 37 individual pieces.  Zwart did not write the overly didactic statements accompanying the works. Nor do I believe they were written by the artists themselves, as the earnest text overly explaining the work’s connection to the show’s theme was a steady recurrence. For example, Richard Cummings’s work, Christ 223 – Locked and Loaded, was paired with text that informed the viewer that the “three-dimensional metal work underscores not only the physicality of the artwork, but points to the atoning work of Christ on the cross.”

Richard Cummings, "Christ 223-Locked and Loaded"

 Perhaps this sort of text does indeed help certain viewers interact with artwork. But I think the strength and interest of themed shows is their ability to provide a context in which to view work so that the viewer can have a starting point to make their own connections to the work, asking for example, how might this piece be communicating something about WORK?

In any case, there were strong pieces in the exhibit, some that were offensive, and many in between. I was drawn to the simplicity of Sandra Bowden’s Worksheet. I admit a bias towards minimalist works, particularly when I do not read the commentary residing next to the work. The ambiguity draws my attention to the details as I look for clues of narrative or ways to interpret the piece. I can ask – “how is this different from the excel spread sheets I edit on my computer? What is the material communicating to me?” The Japanese Rice Paper upon which the graphite grid was drawn, elevated the familiar lines. A complicated tension of sadness and thankfulness for such a handy computer application came to mind.

Sandra Bowden, "Worksheet"

Another piece I spent  time with, again, without reading the accompanying text, was Martha Failinger’s Starbucks. The familiarity of snapshot prompted me to look closer. What was the man in the painting doing? He was dressed in white collar business attire, facing away from the viewer and at first glance perhaps looking out of the large window. But there wasn’t anything outside of the window in focus and the tilt of the man’s head indicated he was looking at whatever was on the table in front of him. Somehow, the simple painting conveys the remote office, the self-employed, and the “always at work, but not quite” dilemma. It made me pause and remember how many times I had seen this man and the automatic assumptions I prescribe to this scene.

Martha Failinger, "Starbucks"

Kathy Hettinga’s artist books left me confused. The title, “The Madonna Hears: Your Prayers, Your Petitions, Prejucial Statement” drew me in, and I took time to read the bits of text that were visible. The work did hint at the “prejudice in the male dominated work culture”, with little bits like:

“What will your husband do? First interview for professor of Art position in private upstate NY College, 1985.”

But the work’s comparison to a Book of Hours only drew attention to the fact that the viewer was not intended to touch the books and could not read what was inside and that the images did not seem to add anything to the loaded text.

I also struggled with Lisa Line’s painting, “The Women Who Remained”  as I tried to understand the narrative and connect with the woman peeling potatoes who dominated the picture plane.

Although the colors used were warm, the scene conveyed an emptiness and sadness. The only other figure depicted was a male carrying a long, rough piece of timber towards an nondescript structure. His shadow does not fall in line with the other shadows in the scene. The knife the woman is using for peeling is pointed towards her body, and her feet are bare. The scene is unsettling and interesting. Yet, the description is flat and lacks complexity.

Perhaps the most disturbing piece was Ryan Jackson’s “Mission Series #9”. The lovely oil painting encapsulated the naivety of well-meaning missionaries and their sponsors.

Ryan Jackson, "Mission Series 9"

The generic little black boy has no face, no hair, no defining clothing, and his head seems slightly deformed, no?Whereas the white young male is handsome and dominates the frame. He has lovely blonde hair and a watch and ring on his finger. The young missionary is active and has just completely his task, or is preparing for this new patient. Perhaps this piece does capture a brutally honest depiction of the show’s theme, “Work: Curse or Calling” within the context of a Christian university.

I leave the show not knowing if I represented its primary audience; if perhaps I was an unanticipated but, of course, welcome viewer. The work was diverse in material and narrative, however the accompanying text clearly conveyed (unnecessarily) to the viewer that the artists involved were Christians and the organizers were Christians and show’s main audience also prescribed to a simplistic Christian narrative. The complexity of the notion of “WORK” was hindered by the didactic text accompanying each artwork, and perhaps also the narrow network to which the call was advertised. In a time when WORK has such political and personal potency, I crave artwork that confronts the complexity, the bitterness, the unfairness, and the joy of work.

by Miriam Slager

The show “WORK: Curse or Calling” is on view at Calvin College’s Center Gallery until April 28th.

One Response to ““Work: Curse or Calling” at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery”
  1. Kathrine Page says:

    If a critic, or viewer feels hindered by didactic texts, then, like television, just don’t look at it. And, like most critics that stick to a pejorative voice, this one missed some of the points of raw bitterness, unfairness, and definitely the sublime joy of peeling potatoes.

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